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Lesley University is laying off faculty members, cutting programs amid budget crunch

“It’s a sad situation,” said Donna Halper, a professor informed her position was being eliminated.

Janet L. Steinmayer, president of Lesley University.Lesley University

Under financial pressure, Lesley University is laying off faculty members and eliminating academic programs as part of a restructuring launched earlier this year to reduce expenses.

The Cambridge university, which is known for educating teachers, confirmed the cuts but declined to specify the number of faculty or programs affected.

But four professors impacted by the layoffs told the Globe on Friday that they have heard of at least two dozen faculty — or about 15 percent of the university’s total core faculty members — who are being sacked. They also said four academic programs are being cut: political science, global studies, sociology, and a graduate program in photography.

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“It’s a sad situation,” said Donna Halper, a communications and media studies professor who was informed this week that her position was being eliminated. “This has been 15 years of my life.”

Lesley president Janet Steinmayer said in an interview Friday that the cuts are necessary to close a budget deficit stemming from declining enrollment and tuition revenue. The college is also trying to reduce administrative costs, she said.

She added that university leaders “are in the process of having a conversation with the core faculty union,” which is why they cannot yet share details.

“We have an obligation to negotiate effects with them,” Steinmayer said. “To be true to that process, we can’t have conversations outside that. I think that has been a source of confusion for people. But we will have those conversations and we will honor the contract.”

Lesley does not have a tenure system but faculty members are unionized.

The school said this week that it made “the difficult decision to restructure low-enrolled programs and those programs not core to the mission of Lesley University,” and “a number of faculty positions have been identified as no longer necessary.”

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The university will focus on “its core strengths” in education, mental health, the arts, and the fields related to those strengths, interim Provost Deanna Yameen said in an interview Friday.

Steinmayer said that current students of eliminated programs will be able to finish their course of study at Lesley.

Mary Dockray-Miller, an English professor, said Thursday that she was notified this week that her position would be eliminated by this time next year.

“They refuse to give a whole lot of information,” Dockray-Miller said of administrators.

She and other faculty members impacted by the layoffs said that they were disappointed by the communication regarding the changes. They said that students are asking questions about programs being eliminated that they cannot answer.

Steinmayer said that administrators are having one-on-one discussions with all impacted employees before sharing all of the details with the community.

The university said it has notified the faculty union of the changes underway. The union, SEIU Local 509, said in an email to the Globe that they have yet been given a list of impacted faculty members. A spokesperson for the union said that they are “extremely disappointed in the administration’s decision to lay off faculty and cut a number of academic programs.”

“We remain committed to supporting faculty by enforcing the hard-fought protections of our collective bargaining agreement and fighting to ensure the most equitable process possible moving forward,” the spokesperson said. “The faculty who remain will continue to serve their students to the best of their ability while continuing to push for accountability from the administration.”

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Many small colleges across New England that depend on tuition to fund operations are struggling financially as populations of college-age students decline, and more students are opting to learn online, or forgo college altogether. Simmons University and Lasell University are considering academic cuts to stabilize their budgets.

Some struggling campuses have merged with other institutions, but Steinmayer said Lesley is not considering a merger at this time.

Lesley’s enrollment fell by roughly a third between 2011 to 2021 to about 4,000 students, bringing significant financial strain to the institution, which relies heavily on tuition and board revenue to fund its operations. Enrollment continued to drop last fall, Steinmayer said, with full-time equivalent students dropping to 2,200 from 2,900.

After that dramatic decline, “That was when we said, ‘We don’t have as much time to solve all these things, and we need to start working on our academic portfolio and our academic structure,’” Steinmayer said. “We started engaging the entire community in that conversation.’”

The college, which has an endowment valued at about $186.6 million, posted a decline in total assets of $37 million between fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022, according to its most recent audited financial report.

Steinmayer, who became president in 2019, has weathered two votes of no confidence from the Faculty Assembly in the past 12 months.

Professors have expressed frustration that her salary has increased from $257,642 in 2020 to $535,271 in 2022, according to tax filings. Steinmayer said that the board sets the compensation for the president. The previous president, Jeff Weiss, made $407,345 in 2019.

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“I have from time to time changed, for the benefit of the university, my compensation,” Steinmayer said Friday. “I certainly did that during COVID. I’ve done it more recently by saying I think the president’s house is too big and we should sell it.

“But, I very strongly believe that we need to be fair to everybody who works in our organization,” she added.

Dockray-Miller, who has taught at Lesley for 23 years, said that she was surprised that she was included in the cuts because English was not among the programs being eliminated.

“What I want to know, and what I did not get an answer to, is what am I going to tell my students tomorrow morning when they ask me if they should transfer because the English major is being eliminated,” she said.



Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.